One of the largest items of concern of a renter is whether or not they will get their security deposit back when they terminate the lease and vacate the premises. Some landlords are tougher to deal with, more detailed, and more argumentative about security deposit refunds. Some landlords are quite straightforward and fair with refunds, especially if you’ve been a good tenant who took care of their property. Either way, there are some steps you can take to help better ensure that you will have the majority of your security deposit refunded.
The process really starts when you are signing your lease. It continues during your lease while you're living in your unit, and ends when your lease is over — though it only really ends when you are satisfied that any amount of deposit that was withheld or kept by the owner was fair and reasonable for the circumstances. If you feel you did not receive a fair amount, you can contest the owner about it if it is worth your time.
Typically, when you sign the lease, you will provide the security deposit to the manager or owner. States have different laws on the maximum amount the security deposit can be, like two or three months of rent. There may also be pet deposits, pool key deposits, or other amounts required at signing. Search the Internet for laws related to this issue for your local area, like on the Tenant’s Legal Center of San Diego website for San Diego residents.
One thing you should consider if you are leasing in a roommate situation is clarifying how the deposit is to be returned. This is especially important if one party is placing the deposit, or at least a larger portion of it. If you don’t specifically note that in the lease, at lease end, the landlord might just write the security deposit refund check out to all parties on the lease, which can cause some issues if you happen to be in a dispute with your former roommates because then all three of you would have to get together and endorse the check for it to be cashed. For this reason, specify in the lease that all charges are to be taken out of the security deposit and the remainder split and refunded via separate checks to party X, Y and Z, in equal portions. You may also consider special circumstances, like if there is a pet owned by one person, maybe all pet damage costs can be taken out of that person's security deposit. This could be a big help in your getting a fair deposit refunded without delay.
At move in, you should take pictures of any damaged items, carpet stains, dirty walls, or holes you see. If they are significant and an issue, you should let the landlord know and try to resolve those issues as soon as possible. If they are not a big deal, just keep the pictures so that you have a record of the issues when you move out. You should also keep written or email records of any/all contact with the landlord on damage or security deposit issues. This way, if the owner tries to dock you at move-out, you can bring out the pictures as support for why you shouldn’t have to pay for an item or a repair.
During your tenancy, take care of the property. Try to keep it clean and avoid doing things that might damage the property. Keeping the property damage-free should afford you the largest security deposit refund at the end. If you alert the owner to issues along the way, like a water spot in the ceiling, they can get it repaired quickly and it will be a much less costly repair. Also, if you plan to make changes, make sure to get your landlord's consent and approval in writing so there are no misunderstandings at move-out. All of these should keep good relations with the owner and that is always the best way to handle your rental situation.
When your lease is ending and you are moving out, you should request a move-out inspection about two weeks before you leave. Get the property cleaned up and have the landlord come inspect it and give you written notice of what needs fixing, etc. This way, you can clear those issues and get the property cleaned for your move. Many people highly suggest having the unit professionally cleaned and preferably by the landlord's preferred maid service. It will cost you $80-$150, but that should eliminate any landlord charges for cleaning; plus, it'll make your life a lot easier because you don’t have to do it!
Lastly, each state and city has different rules and tenant landlord laws. Some are quite tenant-friendly, like California, while some are not very tenant-friendly, so do your research if you need further information. Security deposits can only be used to satisfy certain monies owed, like back rent or damage. The owner also has a certain time period, in most states, to provide an accounting of the security deposit charges and refund the difference. If you can’t get the refund amount and charges issue resolved, you can always take your landlord to small claims court at minor cost, but it does take up your time. So try really hard to get it resolved before any court threats or filings occur, and try to stay reasonable over disputes. Fighting over smaller amounts only wastes your time and energy.
Hopefully, you’ll have a fairly good experience and you’ll be moving to a new house you own, where you won’t need to deal with these issues (but there are many other issues, of course), or a better rental property, and process will start again!